Unleashing employee engagement in discovering creative solutions is only an ask away

June 19, 2014

Four Ways Leaders Can Support Employees’ Natural Instinct to Collaborate & Contribute

The rise of open source software design, social media, and global networking is creating dramatically increased opportunities for people to choose how they channel their discretionary energy. In their spare time, people freely decide where to click, when to click, and more importantly why to click.  And, click they do for everything from playing Candy Crush to helping people in difficult times.

Clay Shirky, an Internet maven, adjunct professor in New York University's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program, and the author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity And Generosity In A Connected Age, has been studying this phenomenon for some time. Using examples from around the globe ranging from LOL Cats to humanitarian projects in Kenya, Shirky describes two conclusions that are deeply relevant for leaders and anyone who seeks to increase employee engagement and collaboration: first, that people would rather do something than nothing, even when they have the option of doing nothing, and second, that people are naturally inclined to collaborate, contribute, share and help.

In his writing and public speaking, Shirky suggests at least six non-financial reasons people willingly volunteer to contribute and collaborate:

Reasons People Volunteer to Contribute & Collaborate

  1. Feeling autonomous or competent.
  2. Enjoying a sense of membership & belonging.
  3. Feeling generous to others in the group.
  4. Being appreciated. Getting thanked.
  5. Demonstrating talents & capabilities.
  6. Affirming one’s own value and sense of self.
  1. I like having a sense of autonomy or competence.
  2. I'm part of a group that knows I'm here. I'm feeling a sense of membership.
  3. I'm being generous to other people in my group.
  4. I get appreciation. I get thanks.
  5. I am showing you how awesome I am.
  6. I'm giving myself a personal affirmation by being the person who's good enough to help you out.

This is an interesting cocktail of altruism and ego, and a powerful dynamic for leaders of manufacturing operations to remember when working to engage their people in contributing to business success.

For an intriguing example of this impulse in action look no further than  The brainchild of British model Lily Cole, is a ground-breaking social network built like a gift exchange. People with needs or "wishes" post them.  Others can then choose to "gift" them in return.  No money changes hands.  The introductory banner on the web-site reads: "Impossible is a money-free community where you can #give or #receive for free. Get help or help others, whether it be skills, advice or physical things."

A quick glance reveals a broad spectrum of requests from, "I wish for someone to help me complete a community nursery" to "I wish to learn Spanish" to "I wish for snow to fall right now."  Wishes granted are acknowledged with a Thank You note, which the giver can display as a  tally of their generosity– all of which taps into the very characteristics Shirky discovered in observing social media behavior.

My own experience consulting to organizations on employee engagement and labor-management collaboration absolutely reinforces these findings. Time and time again, when the invitation to participate and collaborate is genuine and credible, even after years of antagonism, I've seen people willingly seize the opportunity to offer ideas and commitment toward a larger good. Other ingredients are required to build and sustain discretionary energy, but it starts with this fundamental and optimistic inclination.

For leaders, the affirmation of this natural human pattern is good news. And better yet, tapping into this deep natural instinct that people have to contribute and to be generous with talents and ideas, is painfully, yet beautifully simple. It just requires asking.

1- Think of a problem you or your organization are absolutely stuck on. 

  • Like, identify the wish– or in business terms, the driving need– for your facility or operation, whatever it is.
  • Be willing to admit the need for help (this is the painful part).
  • Let go of the notion that solutions or "gifts" can only come from an appropriate department, or an external expert.

2- Share the need by asking for help–from everyone.  

  • Let it be an open invitation. Don't keep score.
  • Put out the word through whatever means you have available: meetings, newsletters, bulletin board postings, etc.

3- Design a process to accommodate the six reasons cited above that people contribute and collaborate. 

  • Make the system transparent and open.
  • Let it self-reinforce appreciation and respect for people's contribution.

4- Respond to people's willingness to contribute by involving them in developing and implementing the path forward.

Here’s a quick example.  I once worked for the vice-president of a remote facility.  His "wish" was for the facility to become a stand-alone cost center so it could better control its own destiny, attract work independent of the parent company and increase employment in the area.  However, high overhead costs impeded the site's ability to be competitive. Overhead had long been considered a budget area that was considered untouchable and non-discretionary– that is until the vice president simply said to all the employees, "Here's my wish Here's the challenge. I need your help."  The response was immediate and passionate.  People made suggestions and changes no matter what their level, position or department.  I helped them develop protocols to turn ideas into measurable actions and in less than nine months the site saved $7 million in overhead costs, through employee ideas alone. Not only did their efforts return significant savings to the division, it also set a tone & protocol for grassroots improvement they sustained over the long haul.

Thanks to Shirky and for shining a light on such an encouraging aspect of humanity: the notion that by our very nature, we come wired with the instinct– and the drive– to contribute and collaborate. By tapping into that natural tendency, leaders can unleash the discretionary energy of people, turn up hidden talents in the workforce, and discover creative solutions to intractable problems.– Ÿ —

* * * * * * * * * *

For conversation about how leaders can tap into the natural inclination to collaborate and contribute to solving problems, please visit the discussion group From Conflict to Collaboration on Linked In. Learn more about Clay Shirky's work  by listening to or reading the transcript of his TED talk on and/or on  More about Lily Cole and can be found at Impossible,com or in The Telegraph’s article “Mission Impossible.”

Marc Bridgham is a member of the Consulting Consortium at Overland Resource Group, a 30-year-old firm specializing in helping its clients achieve operational improvement through employee engagement and labor-management collaboration. He is President and CEO of The Triskelion Group.  Founded in 2002, The Triskelion Group focuses on deliberately and effectively igniting the combined forces of Commitment, Creativity and Community that live within any organization, and aligning those forces to achieve rapid and dramatic improvement in business results. Marc can be reached at [email protected].

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